Facebook, if nothing else, is good at diverting attention away from itself and its pesky public relations nightmares. It doesn’t matter how bad things get – they know that everything becomes the proverbial fish wrap in time.  

Do you even remember that it was not even a week ago when The Facebook Papers dominated the media cycle? Me neither! I had already forgotten what it was all about. The slush of repetitive media coverage based on internal documents was nothing more than just a public relations headache. 

It was an easily solved problem. Change the company’s name (start with a careful leak,) throw in some vision, whip up a slick video, and then on the day of the annual developer conference, rename yourself, Meta. Facebook’s new name comes from Metaverse, which according to its CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the future of the internet where you are “in the experience, not just looking at it,” and “it will touch every product we build.” 

Even if you believe that Zuckerberg has been thinking about this for a few years — I don’t have any doubts about it — the timing of this announcement is expedient and shows that they are and will be masters of media manipulation.  

“It is a political strategy too, part of a broader push to rehabilitate the company’s reputation with policymakers and reposition Facebook to shape the regulation of next-wave Internet technologies, according to more than a dozen current and former Facebook employees,” reported The Washington Post. It will allow the company to “turn the conversation away from such urgent but distasteful matters as the massive antitrust lawsuit filed last year by the Federal Trade Commission.”

All this talk about Metaverse is an excellent way to refocus the attention to the future and away from its present problems. A video that essentially uses a video-game-like interface, Facebook can wash its hands off reality and whatever toxicity of the reality. After all, it is all just a game. You can’t be any angrier about fake information being shared in the metaverse than you can be angry about running over someone in grand theft auto.  

Strategically, the decision makes sense as well. Facebook needs to be independent of hardware and operating system platform owners, Apple and Google. The recent brouhaha with Apple over tracking and privacy has exposed the vulnerability of Facebook’s advertising business. All this talk about the Metaverse and billions of dollars in spending on new hardware-centric opportunities is an excellent signal to Wall Street that they have a strategy to keep the stock flying in the future. It also allows the company to achieve its long-standing goals — a single sign-on for all its products — Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. “I think it’s helpful for people to have a relationship with a company that is different from the relationship with any a specific one of the products, that can kind of supersede all of that,” Zuckerberg told The Verge

That said, it doesn’t solve the one big hairy problem: young people don’t give a shit about Facebook, no matter what banner they hang outside their headquarters. “Facebook was invented on campus for people to get laid, “a long-time observer of the social media sector quipped. “Meta was invented in a conference room.” The person pointed out that Metaverse demos are  what they think is “cool” based on research reports 

“It’s a stretch to believe Facebook can make that work, especially for a company that has shown little development in the nearly ten years since IPO,” wrote Tiernan Ray, a veteran technology writer, in his critique of the big VR bet by Facebook. “There is no evidence the company can organically innovate its way out of being mainly the Web site for old people, as Zuckerberg now characterizes his creation.” 

Friday Night Lights: SF Giants Stadium, long after the game is over. Leica SL2-S. Leica M 135mm lens.

“Tweek,” is an aggregation of the tweets I sent out during the week. It is a habit I picked up from Disquiet, a blog run by Marc Weidenbaum. It allows me to remember what I was thinking about during this specific time. It also allows me to correct my grammar and spelling. If you don’t follow me on Twitter, this is just the best of what I have shared with my community.) 

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September 23: The passing of Melvin Van Peebles made me think of his son, Mario, who made the most wonderful 1991 release New Jack City, which like The Godfather, is one of the best movies about the brutalism of the capitalist way. Quote: “Yo baby, we talkin’ about combinating and consolidating!”

***

 In response to a tweet by outgoing Facebook chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer, I did a tweet thread. 

September 22: Here is my PR-bullshit free translation: 

  • 1. There is no way stock will do better than what it has done over the past 13 years. 
  • 2. Govt(s) oversight is going to grind the company. 
  • 3. Top-down leadership is getting crazier. 
  • 4. Term limit on enabling a monster is 13 years.

I remember when Mike was part of @mozilla and what a strange journey from being part of the open web’s champion to being part of the evil “attention sucking” empire that is a net negative for the web, SV ecosystem & Society.

The last thing I will say to this – the longer you have stayed inside the circle, the less trustworthy you are. It is a shame that SV is hiring from a knowingly toxic and morally ambiguous place. All things learned there are going to pollute the ecosystem for a long time.

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September 22: The macro photography on the iPhone 13 Pro is insane. Here is a close-up of nibs from a new Twisbi pen. My short review from yesterday, in case you missed it.

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September 20@PitchBook: $23.5B invested in Indian startups this year, nearly double what the country’s VC ecosystem collected over the last two years combined. Forty-one unicorns, 17 minted this year. Big market, more local tech IPOs & China (Tech)Chill prompting shift of $$$s to India.

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September 19: 25 years ago, sometime this week, @djshadow

 dropped the mind bomb called Endtroducing. We might be getting old, but that album still keeps rocking. Raise your hand if you heard it then! (Read)

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September 19: Damn @disneyplus has deprecated the @IPL viewing experience by pushing it to @ESPNplusHD & killing @DisneyPlusHS. This is what happens when a global strategy is set from California without understanding viewership. The point of “apps” was to create curated experiences and go after niches. Instead, we are back to the lame “cable oriented thinking,” which isn’t surprising since most media giants aren’t known for innovation.

***

Nothing is more frustrating to me than YouTube, which decides my front page based on my likes. It seems I can’t have multiple interests — variables — and thus, I must watch certain kinds of videos. In its infinite wisdom, Twitter believes that only the people whose content I like or share are the ones whose content I want to consume. And don’t get me started on online dating services — they could learn a thing or two from Sima Taparia

And that is because the post-social world of today is starting to coalesce around variables that are less humanistic and more biased towards corporate goals. “We live in a world that demands categorization,” I recently read in a newsletter, Tiny Revolutions. “We have to do some self-definition so the world knows what to do with us, and so that we can bond with others who share our interests, values, and concerns.”

While the writer, Sara Campbell, might have been talking about an individual’s desire not to be categorized, her words accurately describe our post-social society’s reality, dilemma, and futility in a handful of lines. 

Categorization is part of the human condition. Our brain uses categories to help us make sense of a lot of facts we experience. It is how we learn. As humans, we need categories to contextualize our world, and that includes each other. What is more important is the intent behind the categories. 

Categories, as such, have bias by intent. The bias allows us to ignore variables we don’t want to deal with and place boundaries around a category. It’s important because by ignoring them, we have to use fewer cognitive resources. The bias itself is not good or bad. It is the intent that leads you in different directions. That intent determines what variables we focus on and the ones we ‘choose’ to ignore. 

And a lot of that intent is determined by the human condition. For example, if you have grown up in a more traditional society, the category that defines you is your lineage for most of your life. The “intent” of that categorization is to find your place in the social hierarchy. Lineage isn’t a primary variable for Americans, but college and money are. That is why in more modern societies, such as America, the college you attend defines your place in society and the workplace.

Ever wondered why most conversations start with a question: what do you do? That question is not only reflective of our fading art of conversation, and it also is a way for us to define the variables and get a quick context on the person. By doing so, we quickly decide to assign a value-metric to the person who is the recipient of our attention. 

At best, in the pre-Internet world, categorization would rear its head in a social context, often giving us cues on how to engage with someone. An attractive single woman gets a different kind of attention from another woman versus a single man. Given the nature of modern consumerist society, it wasn’t a surprise that the emergence of databases allowed marketers to categorize us into “buckets” of those who may or may not buy some products. After all, the early usage of computers had been catalyzed by the demands from governmental agencies and corporations that wanted to use data to create categories. 

However, in our post-social society, these categories have become even more granular and metastasized. Just take Facebook as an example. School, location, gender, relationships, and many more variables have started to create a profile of us that can be bundled no different than the dastardly collateralized debt obligation (CDO.)

And it isn’t just Facebook that is alone in using so many variables. From online dating services to online marketing to banking, most of them feel both antiseptic and plastic. These data variables are what make up an algorithm whose sole job is categorization. At present, the algorithms are relatively simplistic. They lack the rationality and nuance that comes from social science.

The bigger question is, what if all these data variables picked by companies for their own needs don’t define you or your interests. I suspect all of us be trapped in a data prison — forced to live lives that an invisible black box algorithm will decide what is good for us.  


August 24, 2021, San Francisco

GLASS’ Tom Watson

“We’re no longer a photosharing app,” Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, a division of Facebook.  Let’s face it: everything Facebook touches eventually turns into an engagement honeypot behind which lies an algorithmic whirlpool designed to suck attention that can be packaged and eventually sold to advertisers. And that is why I am not surprised that … Continue reading GLASS’ Tom Watson

Believe it or not, the harsh glare of scrutiny on big technology giants has kept them honest, more or less. Realizing how much of their present and future business depends on folks wanting to use their services, they work hard to protect data and privacy. (Like I said, more or less!) After all, our data is what they use to bundle and sell as services to their real customers: advertisers. In the case of Apple, the new marketing pitch is all about “privacy” and how they are not collecting tracking data — a handy way to distinguish themselves from Google and Facebook. I buy Apple products precisely for their stance towards privacy, at least in the U.S. In short, a noble ideology that also helps them sell more gear with fat margins—not that there’s anything wrong with it.

The companies we should be worried about are the many smaller and mid-sized companies that most of us have never heard about. Whether it is app developers surreptitiously selling information to third parties, data breaches at retailers (and their digital platforms), or data-brokers with security systems that have more holes than swiss cheese, these companies will continue to be the cause of most headaches in our digital lives. And they are the group more likely to take liberties with data and privacy. 

I began ruminating on this earlier in the week when I read this article about electric utilities resetting the smart thermostats inside residential homes in Houston in response to the rising demand for electricity due to record-breaking heat. This story is a harbinger of our future: what at first seems like some minor convenience and even a seemingly good deal becomes a major problem for those who don’t spend time reading the complicated terms of service documents — which is to say, just about everyone.

In this case, if a customer signed up for an offering called “Smart Savers Texas” from a company called EnergyHub (which is owned by Alarm.com, a seller of security services), they could be entered into sweepstakes. In exchange, they gave permission to EnergyHub to control their thermostats during periods of peak or extreme demand. 

This is yet another example of how, though we dread the future controlled by big technology companies, we will ultimately suffer most at the hands of what I call “non-technology” companies that now have access to our private data and control over our lives.  

And at the top of the list are companies that have always been hostile to their customers: telephone companies, electric utilities, insurance companies, for-profit hospital systems, big airlines, and other such organizations. They will only use “smart data” to amplify their past bad behavior. 

Dark patterns around offers like “Smart Savers Texas” make it virtually impossible for you and me to really discern what we might be signing up for. After all, no one sifts through the pages-long terms of service agreements. And I certainly don’t mean to pick on this one company — this “unclear” behavior is part of the entire digital ecosystem. 

Try getting out from under a contract at a health club or canceling your subscription to The New York Times. Good luck. In this digital age, these seemingly simple tasks have only gotten harder. I have been trying, without much success, to unsubscribe from emails from a publishing company for almost a decade. And this is neither the first nor the last time you are going to see “utilities” or other entities muck around with what you assume to be private spaces. 

What happened in Houston is among a rapidly growing list of incidents that make me pause about embracing the Smart Home, even though I was an early adopter. The safety of our “connected devices” is increasingly unclear. I have little trust in Amazon’s ability to police its digital shelves. What if the device we are buying is fake or is sending data surreptitiously to an overseas destination? I don’t know if you remember (or even read) this scary story in Vice about seemingly innocuous apps that collect personal data and sell it to anyone willing to pay. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. It is increasingly important to pause and consider: is cheap really cheap, or is there a bigger price to pay in the long term?

Belatedly, and thankfully, Apple has introduced AppTrackingTransparency (ATT), which will force apps to seek permission to track us and our activity across apps. Deservedly, many have written about the impact of this on Facebook, but it goes beyond that one company. Still, as EFF points out, it doesn’t do enough. 

“It doesn’t do anything about ‘first-party’ tracking, or an app tracking your behavior on that app itself,” EFF writes on its blog. “ATT might also be prone to ‘notification fatigue’ if users become so accustomed to seeing it that they just click through it without considering the choice. And, just like any other tracker-blocking initiative, ATT may set off a new round in the cat-and-mouse game between trackers and those who wish to limit them.”

And that’s the challenge. The pressure of protecting our digital sanctity is falling on consumers, not those who profit from it. Even Apple’s efforts shift the workload to ordinary people, and many of us are just not equipped to handle the cognitive load or don’t understand the impact. 

For nearly a decade, I have raised questions about an individual’s rights pertaining to how data is collected and used. In 2014, naively I wrote about something called “Terms of Trust,” in which companies explain what they would do with our data in plain language, instead of legalese. 

Eight years later, we are still stumbling through the fog — even in our own homes.

June 22, 2021, San Francisco